Aliens are trolling the history books

A long, long time ago, the History Channel showed documentaries. About actual history.

These days, if you flip to the History Channel you’re more likely to encounter something like Ancient Aliens, which is currently going into its fourth (!) season in South Africa.

For those who are unfamiliar with Ancient Aliens, the premise is in the title. It’s a documentary, of sorts, that explores the dubious proposition that human beings were visited centuries ago by aliens.

The evidence presented in support of this notion is generally not convincing.
The default argumentative approach used by the series is to find gaps where our knowledge of the past is incomplete, and then insert “aliens” as a catch-all explanation for anything.

In the season premiere, much is made of a rock carving that supposedly depicts the 7th-century Mayan King Pakal in the cockpit of a spaceship. I’ve looked at photos of the artwork, and I can honestly say that the resemblance eludes me. But the evidence is good enough for David Childress, one of the “ancient alien theorists” who regularly appear on the show, who proclaims Pakal to be “the original rocket man”.

Ancient Aliens is, in short, a stupid show. So am I doing too much damage to my credibility if I admit that I kind of love it?

Consider the fact that there are two types of experts who are interviewed in Ancient Aliens. (Trying to figure out which group someone falls in is a fun, interactive game that you can play with your television.) The first group consists of legitimate experts, with doctoral degrees in fields such as archaeology and religious studies, who I can only surmise have been tricked into appearing on the show.

These individuals make uncontroversial statements, which are then ripped grotesquely out of context by the show’s producers. For example, an expert in ancient religion will discuss the Mayan belief in a snake god, and this will be overlaid with spooky music and a 3D animation of a snake-shaped spaceship. This is academic trolling of the highest order — it feels like a Sacha Baron Cohen show designed to humiliate university professors.

Then there is the second group of “experts”. These are the ancient- alien theorists, who typically have no qualifications, and range from cynical hucksters to the genuinely insane. Due to the popularity of the show, some of these figures have become moderately famous in their own right. There is, for example, Giorgio Tsoukalos, a minor internet sensation because of his forceful gestures and wild hairstyle. My personal favourite is Childress, who works himself into a wild-eyed frenzy when explaining his theories.

Tsoukalos is fond of laying out alien-related scenarios, and then asking, rhetorically: “Is this possible?” The answer, invariably, is yes. However, this is a terrible question to ask. It is also possible that the entire world and everyone in it popped into existence five minutes ago, with all of our memories fully formed. The more important question is: Is it likely?

The South African broadcast schedule for the series lags behind the United States, which sometimes leads to unintentionally comedic results. The first two episodes, for example, focus heavily on the infamous Mayan apocalypse that was scheduled to occur in December 2012. Remember when the world was reduced to fiery oblivion because of a “rare galactic alignment”? Well, that was totally supposed to happen seven months ago.

To be fair, there are unironic pleasures to be had from Ancient Aliens. The series frequently showcases remarkable structures from the ancient world. In some cases, the question of how our ancestors managed to build these monuments is a genuine puzzle. Unfortunately, it’s a puzzle that Ancient Aliens, with its monomaniacal focus on extraterrestrial explanations, does little to solve.

Perhaps the real puzzle is Ancient Aliens itself. I have to wonder: Do the producers of this show actually believe in ancient-alien theories? Or do the filmmakers secretly laugh at the alien theorists when their backs are turned? Is it possible that the whole series is an elaborate joke: a piece of comedic performance art in which the faux-serious tone is merely one more layer of irony?

As Giorgio Tsoukalos would say: Yes, it is possible.

Ancient Aliens airs on Sundays at 8.30pm on the History Channel

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